How to keep from getting discouraged?
May 7, 2012 12:43 PM   Subscribe

How do I keep from getting discouraged in personal pursuits (spec. hobbyist electronics)?

So, I'm one of those people who needs to really kick his own ass into gear if I plan on doing anything with my off-time outside of watching entire seasons of things and cracking wise on MetaFilter. Slowly, but surely, I've been getting myself back into electronics and after a several-month-long break of feeling guilty, I've re-restarted again recently. The trick is going to be to stay interested.

I already have a hard time not being a dilettante. On top of that, I have an anxious to trying to integrate myself into communities -- real or virtual -- about stuff I like. I know I should probably go hang out in a hackerspace but my brain immediately just goes to spooning out rationalization after rationalization of why I shouldn't ("It's a long train ride," "I don't want to fuck up my gear in transit," "it seems expensive," ad infinitum) I don't know what's up with that, but I've been working on it and there's been progress. The problem is that when I do try to, say, read a book on this stuff, or hang out on the forums, I get easily discouraged. It's like I flip a coin every time I come to a stumbling block or gap in my knowledge or non-trivial problem to solve. And "anxiety" and "excitement" are the two sides and mine keeps coming up "anxiety." I know I'm not in competition with anyone. I'm not planning to make a living off this. I just want to keep my brain active and entertain myself.

I really, genuinely like working with this stuff, but rather than being encouraged by other's successes, I feel like there's this unbridgeable gap between what I know, and can learn to do, and what everyone else knows and does. I'm sure I don't have the burning passion that some (most? I don't know) people do, but I'm cool with that. I have a lot of other stuff on my hands as well and can't singlemindedly devote myself to this. But how do I keep at bay the desire to just throw up my hands and call it a day without accomplishing anything every time I can't figure something out or see someone else's progress?

I just want to be able to get my equipment out, and start working on something, look things up when I'm confused, and avoid that pang of frustration and anxiety that makes me want to just let the soldering iron collect another two months of dust on the shelf.
posted by griphus to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: "On top of that, I have an anxious reaction to..."
posted by griphus at 12:44 PM on May 7, 2012

What about taking classes? It sounds like you might do a lot better with structured learning, where there is someone to fill in those stumbling blocks/gaps you have, and build on your knowledge in an organized way. Plus it's a situation where everyone will be pretty close to your ability level. And it's also harder to skip when you know - every time I skip, that's $X down the drain that I already pre-paid...
posted by cairdeas at 12:53 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recently had an epiphany about things related to one of my interests (writing), which is that I feel guilty when I DON'T do something (don't post to my writing blog for a day, don't work on my novel), and then I also feel guilty when I DO something (spend an hour working on my novel, for example).

Which says interesting volumes about my tendency to negatively self-talk. The only half-way rational thing (which doesn't seem that rational as I type it out in cold print) is the idea that if I spend mental energy on my personal writing, I'll have less energy... to... throw more time at my day job? Which isn't really a good reason, provided I'm keeping up on my day job, and even less so given that I seem to have time to do stuff like - crack wise on Metafilter.

I tend to worry that I'll get wrapped up or involved in something extra-curricular and will wind up giving something necessary short shrift. It's kind of an irrational fear.

You've also mentioned things that pertain to money (going places, spending on equipment). Can you set a budget for your electronics hobby and stick to it, both positively and negatively? In other words, don't spend too much, but don't spend nothing either, unless you're saving month to month for some expensive thing related to it.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:57 PM on May 7, 2012

Can you find a friend to work on this stuff with you? Having another mind that's into what you're into really helps.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:58 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think also among smart people there's this idea that being an audodidact is better than anything else and if you are really and truly smart then you do better learning anything on your own than having someone to teach you. But, I think that's pretty much bogus for most people. Having a great instructor can make learning a given topic way easier than learning on one's own, not just in understanding the material but in all those other areas you mentioned like frustration, motivation, figuring out what to do next, etc.
posted by cairdeas at 12:59 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it means something to you, than do it. Do not worry about how much you don't know, won't know, or can't know. How would you ever get anything done if you looked at all of life this way?

Stanford has quite a collection of free, online courses, including some electronic-related ones. This is amazing.

While you probably think of ham radio as a bunch of old, white guys with funny hats and plaid shirts at hamfests (and to a large degree you'd be correct), there is a great amount of electronics you can learn in the process of getting your license(s). I had 3 licenses for 10 years before I ever bought an actual HF radio and only got that after getting the Extra class licenses..thought it made sense at that point. I only studied for the first licenses to learn the theory.

(though I tend to be the same way as you in regards to guitar playing!)
posted by dukes909 at 1:02 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Find some awesome night/weekend classes and build a puggle levitation system for your home. FOR EXAMPLE.

Also I find that it helps to set an actual schedule for when you want to do $_NEWTHING instead of just doing it whenever you have some spare time. Also also it helps (me at least) to do things first thing in the morning (after all the other first thing in the morning things) to 01) reduce distractions and 02) make use of what is likely your most alert time of day.
posted by elizardbits at 1:06 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm used to this more for software than hardware, but for me it helps to have a clear useful project to work on. The project should be something that I actually want and will use, so even if it's a relatively simple or silly project I should be looking forward to completing it to get to use it rather than it just being a learning experience. Even better are projects where you get, say, 25% of the way into it and have some sort of useful working prototype, it's a big morale boost when you have your project at least partially working as you continue to build it rather than building toward an eventual payoff that may never happen. And a big motivator is if there's an actual external deadline or if someone other than me is going to be expecting the project to be finished. The point of all of this is when you get the inevitable "Is this even worth it?" question going off in your head when you run into real problems that require non-fun drudgery as part of your supposedly fun hobby project, there's a reason to dismiss it and keep going.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:14 PM on May 7, 2012

I sometimes have this tendency to feel like I have to spend umpteen bajillion hours learning fundamentals before I can do anything fun. Initially I will be excited to learn fundamentals but ultimately it bores me and then I feel guilty/discouraged etc.

But once in a while i say 'screw the fundamentals, I am skipping to the fun stuff, weeeee!' and then muddle through it. Sure, I make a hell of a lot of mistakes, but in the end I learn way way more than if I had decided I have to slog thru (and quit) ComplicatedHobby 101 before I can do FunAwesomeThing 808.

So if it is just a hobby anyway, skip to fun stuff. Hit your first brick wall? HULK SMASH!
posted by ian1977 at 1:19 PM on May 7, 2012

Have you undertaken something that's honestly too difficult for your current skill level? Should you be working on a more introductory project? Are your standards too high?

Also, practice saying, "I'm new," "I don't understand xxxxx," "I'm just learning this stuff," "Can you point me to a thread/book/page with basics that you find helpful?" etc. In most of the hobby/interest communities I've been in, people are very generous to new participants as long as they show a willingness to learn from what they're given. Expose yourself as an amateur and you no longer have to worry about being exposed as an amateur.
posted by thirteenkiller at 1:26 PM on May 7, 2012

Response by poster: Have you undertaken something that's honestly too difficult for your current skill level?

That's one of the problems: I have absolutely no idea what my current skill level is, nor how to determine it. I've been working with circuits and programming (everything I'm doing right now is Arduino-centric) since I was, about twelve or thirteen. I never paid much attention in school but I took and passed at least a half-dozen CS and EE courses between the ages of 12 and 19, and most of that stuff stuck. So I'm not coming into this with a blank slate, but I have no idea what the extent of my knowledge is.
posted by griphus at 1:34 PM on May 7, 2012

"So I'm not coming into this with a blank slate, but I have no idea what the extent of my knowledge is."

Start with a kiddie project and work your way up. It's fun and satisfying to start off with something easy-peasy that lets you get your groove back and doesn't take too long to finish. And it's satisfying to really overdo the technique on a simple project, and to say to yourself, when I learned this when I was 12, it would have been so sloppy, and now it is AWESOME. Makes me feel good about how much I've learned and how many skills I've gained, even when coming back to something after a long hiatus.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:47 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You have to have a goal, and the goal can't be "to understand electronics" - or anything else that abstract. Maybe you want to make a special kind of wah pedal because you don't like the sound of existing ones. Or maybe you want to automate feeding your cat. Or maybe you want to hack your iWhatever. Or maybe whatever whatever. But find your goal. If you don't have one that can be solved by electronics, consider what that means. Or if it is a very large goal you may need to bite only a piece of it. Personally, I needed to make a copy of a book, quickly, and that goal led to years of interesting work and my own community of co-hackers. The less frivolous your goal, the better, unless you get off on frivolity. Then by all means, do something ridiculous. The bar is high.

Then, break it down. First, you need to buy some stuff (buy it now). Then, you need to start making each part of the stuff work (blink the LED, get the things connected to your computer, fix any nagging issues, prove each part). Finally, you need to integrate all of it (you will find all kinds of new things you didn't think about).

You write this out like the outline of an essay and you break it down into manageable tasks. Sometimes I seriously have to break it down as far as "Clean workbench tabletop. Put fresh Arduino on workbench. Drag power supply out of closet, place on workbench." Then I do these things and I am reminded about how refreshing it all is and how good it feels vs browsing here and wasting precious hours reading drivel comments on the intertubes. I have seen how much you comment here. If you put that much energy into any other hobby you would be a goddamn professional.

One common beginners mistake (which is rarely addressed) is being cheap - some equipment is just the cost of doing business. If you are trying to write an iFon app, you need a damn iFon. If you are trying to build electronics, but balk at the price of an old used 'scope, you're doing yourself grave disservice. You don't need all super badass gear, but you do need to give yourself adequate (DON'T GET STUCK ON THIS- adequate only) tools for the job, especially because having good tools can get you beyond those frustrating moments quickly. For me personally, a crappy old oscilloscope has helped tremendously. Watch the signal go in, watch it come out, understand what is happening. Likewise a good soldering iron. Yeah, they're SEVENTY whole dollars, that's a lot of money. But watching amateur hackers struggle (in other words, waste precious motivation and energy) because of a poor choice of tools, well, it is painful for those of us on the other side. Only waste energy on important things.

I am a hyper motivated super work focused ambitious person. My motivation sometimes terrorizes the people close to me. That said, from time to time I have faced the same motivational issues and made excuses not to do my work. Other people sometimes help - I get mine online. Having my tools always at the ready helps. Having the right tools helps. Spending money helps (if you can move your project forward by just buying something... BUY IT). Being realistic, and breaking things into tiny pieces that add up into a whole, that helps most of all.

Doesn't hurt to be single and antisocial. I go back and forth on those, but my most productive times have always been when I am single and prefer work to personal contact. About hackerspaces, I hate to say this in public, because I love hackerspaces, but I find them more sites of socialization than places of production. Go there with a goal in mind, a problem to solve or a thing you need help understanding.

The most important thing you can do is write up everything you're doing online. Every little discovery, every deep-dive into some forum learning about some particular thing, you need to write out, online, somewhere. That way you never waste time going back to find that nugget of knowledge, and you get others further along than you. Additionally, you create a massive, searchable record of what you've done and how you did it and where you learned it, which will give you something to stand on when you feel like you haven't done much or when one of your projects fails or is unexpectedly difficult. Additionally, you help others with the same problem move forward without having to go through the same pain. From what you've written I get that you might be self-conscious about this or find it difficult to write out because you're not an expert yet. Use a pseudonym if you need to.

Good luck.
posted by fake at 2:02 PM on May 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

I find it's surprisingly effective to learn more about your heroes in the field. They're inspiring and have a lot of insight on ways to get going. Sometimes a quick What Would Jesus Do type question to yourself can shortcut the agonizing over whether or not to try something or go somewhere.

The other thing I would advise you do is be very very very specific in your requirements for yourself. Vagueness is fodder talking yourself out of getting things done. You don't really have anything to do when you're vague; there's no to do list. So it's easy to avoid. Make a list, then go over it and make sure you know what you're going to do in detail.
posted by rhythm and booze at 2:22 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

*fodder for talking yourself out of getting things done, sigh
posted by rhythm and booze at 2:23 PM on May 7, 2012

Great advice here so far. I can't really address the electronics parts of it (other than to say it's very interesting and cool) but your frustration with your "interest" level, being easily discouraged, etc. you describe is crushingly familiar to me, so I'd like to address that.

I'd like to expand a bit on what randomkeystrike mentioned - the negative self-talk. You have to get rid of it. If I may use my own experience as an example, it is THE source of your frustration, guilt, and anxiety, that causes you to put away the soldering iron, or to give up on other pursuits that capture your interest/imagination.
I can't really put into words how much better my life has been since I've started recognizing and working on these habits about 7 years ago.

Because they really are just habits - the thoughts you're having, the guilt, the discouragement, all of the "I should do x, y, z." These thoughts are not a reflection of your abilities, talent, or fundamental personality. They're a reflection of how you've come to habitually view yourself. They're a reflection of your expectations for yourself, realistic or not.
It's well worth the effort to address this - it will let you actually ENJOY what you're doing, instead of getting trapped in your own muck.

What worked for me was building a sort of arsenal against destructive, self-abasing, perfectionistic thoughts - an "encouraging but realistic" arsenal. For example:
"I'm destined to be a dilettante - I'll never get good at anything." I would counter with "OF COURSE you'll never get good at anything, if you keep giving up all the time."
Or: "That guy/girl is way better than me at this, I don't think I'll be that good." I would mentally say: "That guy/girl maybe felt the same way as me one time. And now they can do what I want to do. If I don't keep trying I'll never get there."
I also asked myself regularly: "where do I want to be with X in 1 year? if I don't get used to this concept/etc, can I be there in 1 year? probably not. so, keep at it!"
It took time to gather, and integrate these perspectives - years. Progress was, much of the time, imperceptible. But cumulatively, the effect has been enormous.

Ahhh, I could write on and on! There are tons of books and webpages that describe similar things much better than I can (some of which I got ideas from when I felt really desperately dilettante-ish) but I just wanted to give you encouragement "from the other side". It doesn't have to be this way.

If it's TL;DR - a summary - in addition to taking the other great advice here, find a way to eliminate the negative self-talk, perfectionism, and guilt! It's a huge waste of energy!
posted by Pieprz at 3:37 PM on May 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

I feel like there's this unbridgeable gap between what I know, and can learn to do, and what everyone else knows and does. I'm sure I don't have the burning passion that some (most? I don't know) people do, but I'm cool with that.

There isn't this gap. Most of the people making that intimidating stuff face the same problem you are facing, and various people deal with it in various ways.
Some good advice that I've been given is "Do some work on it every day. It doesn't matter how little you get done, as long as you do something every day, you'll never stop making progress"

It's great advice. I hope it helps you. I haven't been able to manage it myself. I have to find other ways, yet I've still made things that have prompted people to say things like what you say. In my case, part of it is just developing an attitude that if it's learn-able, then I am capable of (eventually) learning it, so the only question is do I have the time? Often, I don't decide that I want to invest my time in something else, but this seems like a more empowering version of your "the gap is unbridgeable".

And as said before - set yourself up for success. Have a workspace ready to go for whenever you're in the mood. (When I'm feeling inspired, by the time I've cleaned up my workspace and I'm able to start, I often feel like I've finished chores and now want to watch a video). Get equipment that makes it easy to succeed. Use materials that make it easy to succeed. Use materials that make it worthwhile to succeed. (Ie if you're going to put a lot of time and effort into building something, don't build it out of cheap shit, because then you ensure that even if you succeed, the result of all your labor will be cheap and crappy)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:22 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hear you about not wanting to explore hackerspaces due to anxiety or whatever (what I think of as "new-guy syndrome"), but what about going down to NYCResistor and just poking your head in? Ask if this is where (something on some other floor) is. Just dip a toe in, see what the place looks like. Promise yourself a cannoli once you do that little thing. You may find that you hang out for a bit, but the important thing to do is to do it anyway. Be a dope with no clue. "Is this where the bathroom is?" You might see something worth glomming onto, "so what do you cats do here, anyway?"

I do think being around other people is a great motivator (as little as I do it myself).
posted by rhizome at 5:41 PM on May 7, 2012

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